Gloria Steinem has frequently spoken about the importance of sharing stories, using the imagery of communicating oral narratives around an ancient campfire. She has done that with her own personal history in the HBO documentary, Gloria: In Her Own Words. Responding to questions asked by director Peter Kunhardt and co-producer Sheila Nevins, Steinem has added depth to readily accessible facts by opening up about the darker corners of her emotional life.
Two juxtaposed Glorias emerge. One evolves from a brunette young woman who came to New York City via Smith College. (Early on, Steinem had determined that she would get out of Toledo, Ohio—even if it had to be on the winged feet of her tap dancing prowess.) The other is a woman who has lived seven decades, delved into the journey of self-knowledge, and come up with the hindsights that the passage of time affords.
Repeatedly referenced as a “feminist icon,” Steinem often functions as a blank slate upon which others imprint their own anxieties, appreciation, disapproval or angry resentments. In a society that habitually discards its most prominent contributors when they are deemed no longer relevant, Steinem radiates resilience. Functioning as a stand-in Rorschach test for all the attributes and shortcomings of the feminist movement, her best armor has been an acute sense of humor.
I saw the documentary first on a preview DVD, and then at the Women’s Media Center screening at the HBO building. The 120-seat theater was filled with women (and a handful of men) representing a continuum of ages and a modicum of diversity. As Steinem quipped when she appeared to answer audience questions—fresh from a taping with Stephen Colbert, “For a lot of people in this room, it’s a home movie.” Archival footage of the 1972 Democratic convention (where one third of the delegates were women) and the march in Manhattan down Fifth Avenue gained a breadth of scope on the larger screen. The experience of hearing in unison laughter when a 1960s broadcaster intoned, “Women have a problem with concentration,” lent a feeling of community. Yet Steinem’s private revelations were more intimate when viewed via television’s smaller scale.
Throughout the film, a window into the burgeoning women’s movement runs parallel to the storyline about the girl born in the 1930s who described her awareness as, “I’m not sure if I knew what feminism was. I thought if I was having difficulty, it was my own personal fault.”
Pursuing a career as a freelance journalist, Steinem was continually assigned features on food, beauty, and babies despite her interest in political topics. “The low point,” she said, “was writing a piece on textured stockings.” Friday afternoon propositions by the boss were not uncommon. Steinem notes of this time, “There was no word for sexual harassment. It was just called life.”
In 1963, Steinem got what she called “the bunny assignment,” to do an undercover report about employment conditions at the “glamorous” Playboy Club. What was written as an exposé of “grinding work in three-inch heels” ended up creating new problems of credibility for Steinem’s writing—as she got stamped with the “unserious” label.
By the time Steinem hit her 30s, she realized that she wasn’t the only woman having problems. She put it concisely, “I wasn’t crazy, the system was crazy.” Her “aha” moment came in 1969, when she was covering a story about an abortion hearing for New York Magazine. For Steinem, “That was the big click.” At 22, she had an abortion and never told anybody. The black and white sequence of the meeting illustrates irate women speaking up and refusing to be silenced. It is evident how the energy and dissension in the room telegraphed a message to Steinem that she was now ready to decode. She observed, “I began to understand that my experience was an almost universal female experience.”
A montage of top male news anchors delivering reports in 1970 about the new “women’s liberation movement,” serves as a mordant backdrop to Steinem discussing her frustration about not being able to get her work published. It pushed her to seek a different venue to get the word out. She moved into speaking publicly, embarking on a national tour in partnership with Dorothy Pitman Hughes.
By then, Steinem had evolved into the “Gloria persona.” Explaining the genesis, she said. “I used the aviator glasses to hide behind.” The blonde streaks at the front of her long hair owed their origins to Audrey Hepburn’s character Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s–and Steinem’s appreciation for Golightly’s determination not to lose her freedom in a relationship based on “belonging to another person.”
The recognition that there was no place for women to read content uncontrolled by men was Steinem’s impetus for co-founding Ms. magazine. Feminism hadn’t been faring well in the media, though as Steinem slyly pointed out, “Hostility is a step forward from ridicule.” Harry Reasoner pronounced the periodical’s mission as “sad.” The number of issues printed was supposed to last on the newsstands for three months. They sold out in a week. Seven months later, Ms. was in the black. For Steinem, making a point of using her “anger constructively” had paid off well.
Despite what appeared to be a successful and glamorous life, Steinem was dogged by criticism—from outside the movement and from within. “A woman who aspires to be something is a bitch,” she said. Both lauded and excoriated for her appearance, Steinem stated, “I work really hard, and then it’s attributed to looks. That’s really painful.” Esquire magazine ran a story (with an accompanying comic strip) portraying Steinem in such a negative light that she characterized it as “cruel.” Some of the sniping, bubbling just below the surface, came from other contributors to feminism who resented the limelight coalescing around Steinem. The most prominent conflict played out with Betty Friedan, author of the groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique. Steinem said of Friedan, “She considered herself the owner of the movement.” Looking to expand feminist alliances with other constituencies marginalized by traditional hierarchies, Steinem forged friendships with women who shared her sensibilities—such as Bella Abzug and Flo Kennedy. Qualifying Friedan’s approach, Steinem elucidated, “She didn’t identify down, she identified up.”
In 1977, The National Women’s Conference took place in Houston, Texas. Steinem refers to it as a major highlight of her career. First Ladies Ford, Johnson, and Carter were present. The 20,000 women in attendance had different objectives for the proposed National Plan of Action, twenty-six resolutions that were put to a collective vote. Ultimately, abortion and lesbian rights—along with support for the Equal Rights Amendment—were included in the Plan submitted to President Carter in 1978. Steinem worked non-stop to promote her ideological agenda, pushing herself relentlessly.
Viewers get an unguarded glimpse of Steinem’s core in the segments where she addresses her dysfunctional upbringing. She describes her father as a “charming” but “totally irresponsible man,” and tells how her mother, a “pioneer in journalism who couldn’t do it all,” was debilitated by what was “at that time called a nervous breakdown.” In a childhood that Steinem depicts as scary and depressing, she became a caretaker to a mother who couldn’t function. When her father departed, they were a household of two women, enveloped by the sound of a persistently playing radio. Steinem learned to rely on the defense mechanism of “detachment.” She came to understand, in her later adult years, that she had distanced herself from her mother out of the apprehension of “not being her.” Steinem expresses profound misgivings about her handling of the demise of both her parents. Her father, who was mortally injured in a car accident in 1961, died alone. Resisting the call to travel to California to be with him, Steinem feared being recast in the role of caretaker. She was at her mother’s side during her last hours, yet confesses that in retrospect, “I so regret that I wasn’t more of a companion to her.”
Steinem’s 50th birthday was celebrated by a party attended by luminaries—or as Phil Donahue put it, “The revolution comes to the Waldorf.” She saw the year as a definitive marker. Yet, it was a diagnosis of breast cancer (she had a lump excised and was treated with radiation) that served the purpose of making her aware of the passage of time.
In the segment titled, “There was a period when the world was in black and white instead of color,” Steinem sorts out an interval when she dealt with depression. Moving from “bottoming out,” she looked internally. Burnt out from constant traveling and speaking gigs, the solitary din of a radio in her hotel room brought back the memories and unfinished business of her childhood—and the “neglected child” who felt “she didn’t exist.” With this realization, Steinem knew that she “couldn’t go forward in the old way.” Her book on self-esteem, Revolution from Within, uses her own issues as an anchoring point. She admits, “Even social activism can be a drug that keeps you from going back, as you keep trying to fill up an emptiness which can’t be filled by anything external.”
Married in 2000 to David Bale, it was a union of two partners who understood that “love is not about power.” Steinem affirms that for the first time since childhood, she felt “in the present.” Bale developed brain lymphoma in 2002, which lasted a year. In considering what she learned from Bale’s illness and death, she recounts her appreciation for the chance to do-over her part as a caretaker—this time as an adult. The exchange is another parallel of the younger Gloria and older Gloria—underscoring her psychological progression.
Why did Steinem evolve into a symbol of so much to so many? It’s impossible to know. She became a vessel through which some women discovered themselves, their potential, and the strength to advocate for their own truths. For others, she will remain the scapegoat for the “downfall of our beautiful American family,” as an irate caller to Larry King pronounced.
On her own place in the feminist pantheon, Steinem tells audiences on college campuses, “Don’t listen to my advice. Listen to the voice inside you and follow that.” She is clear that being of a different generation, girls coming up now need to have their own feminist heroes. In a self-effacing manner Steinem suggests, “The primary thing is not that they know who I am, but who they are.”
Her hope for the future is succinct—a time when being a feminist means you see the world whole instead of half. “It shouldn’t need a name,” Steinem pronounces. She adds, “One day it won’t.”